Thousands greet long awaited community center opening

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The day finally arrived.

After years of hopes and frustrations, fundraisers and meetings, planning sessions and budget talks, the day came. The $32 million Eastside Community Center opened its doors with a celebration that drew some 3,000 people last Saturday.

The daylong celebration started with a community parade from nearby First Creek Elementary School, thumps from Lincoln High School’s drumline and then speeches. There were plenty of speeches before the scissors came out and the ribbon got cut so the float of spectators could view what all the excitement was about. And they were not disappointed.

The 55,000-square-foot center is at the corner of East 56th Street and Portland Avenue – the heart of the community. Among its features, the center offers a multi-use gymnasium, a social hall that fits some 500 people, smaller meeting rooms, and a culinary kitchen that not only will serve as a teaching kitchen but the hub of meal preparation. The center has a weight room, dance rooms and cardio-fitness areas. The anchor attraction of the center, however, is the pool that offers lap lanes, a diving board, a climbing wall that drops into the pool, a “drop slide” that also splashes into the pool and a zip line that resembles a lake-side rope swing. The pool area also includes a toddler area with a spray feature and a hot tub.

Continuing down the roster of amenities, the center has an arts area, a walking track and a recording studio with the latest equipment needed to do everything from experimenting with sounds to recording and mixing a full album. Everything in the center is expected to draw up to 350,000 visitors a year, including 200 children a day who visit the center to participate in Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound programs.

The facility has been years in the planning and comes courtesy of a collection of partnerships among Metro Parks Tacoma, the City of Tacoma, Tacoma Public Schools, Tacoma Housing Authority, the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound, the Greater Metro Parks Foundation and the Billy Ray Shirley III Foundation. State and federal dollars also played into the center’s funding.

Inside the gym during the grand celebration, Representative Denny Heck (D-10th District) told the crowd to simply pause their activities and chats to absorb the moment, to smell the fresh paint, to marvel at the mirror finish on hardwood floor, to then imagine the scuff marks on the walls, and the chipped paint and the smell of sweaty gym towels that will be tossed into bins over the years of use. The center will be well used by future generations.

“The building will get more beautiful with each day that passes,” he said, noting that it has already given the neighborhood a sense of pride and hope for even more change.

That change has been a long time in coming. Shalisa Hayes spearheaded the community effort for the center after the murder of her son Billy Ray Shirley III in 2011. He had asked his mother about ways to organize an effort to help children of the neighborhood have someplace constructive to spend time. He was only 17 when he was shot in the back when he showed up at a party to take a friend home. The center’s recording studio is named in his honor.

But there are countless other names the center should also celebrate. Top on Senator Steve Conway’s list of thus far unmentioned warriors of the Eastside is the “Champion of the Eastside” Nancy Davis.

“There were a lot of people who made the Eastside Community Center happen,” Conway said. “The Eastside had long been overlooked by the leadership of the city and the county.”

The Eastside saw libraries and schools close. It saw the Boys and Girls Club close. It saw high crime and neglect dating back decades, as the eyes of new programs, parks and redevelopment dollars flowed into redefining downtown and the Hilltop neighborhood, which was terrorized by gang violence during the 1980s and 1990s.

“The whole Eastside was neglected for years,” Conway said.

But Davis never gave up while at Metro Parks Tacoma, or while on Tacoma City Council, or when she marched for social justice that ranged from LBGTQ rights to speaking up about youth programs and services for the disenfranchised.

She would have liked to see the opening of the Eastside Community Center. She would have smiled and remembered all the neighbors and faith leaders of the Eastside who made it happen. But she missed the ceremony, as she passed away last summer, but her spirit lives on in accomplishments like the Eastside Community Center.

To learn more about the center, visit www.metroparkstacoma.org/eastside.

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